Education Minister Chris Hipkins has accused industry training organisations of playing hard and fast with the truth, as the consultation period for major reforms closes and the Government races towards its 2020 implementation date.

In February, Hipkins announced a major overhaul of the vocational education sector, with plans to create a single, centralised New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology to replace the 16 autonomous institutes of technology and polytechnics.

This would also mean redefining the roles of industry training organisations (ITOs) and instead establishing “industry skills bodies”, with the intent of getting more leadership and input from employers and industry.

The proposed reforms come as the vocational education sector is failing, with four of the polytechnics – autonomous Crown entities – being bailed out last year at a cost of $100 million.

The cost of the failing polytechnics, and the potential for the system to fall apart, created a sense of urgency in the Government’s eyes. But the consultation process has been fraught, thanks to a tight timeframe and what Hipkins frames as unconstructive engagement from some parts of the sector.

“The biggest casualty in this particular battle has been the truth.”

Similar to the Tomorrow’s Schools review, at its core the proposal removes competition from the education sector. Under the current model, some have flourished while others have failed.

In shades of the Tomorrow’s Schools reform debate, ITOs have launched a coordinated campaign to try and stop the changes.

But by saying ITOs would “no longer exist”, Hipkins said the organisations were being misleading “to the point of being downright dishonest”.

The proposal was intended to create more of an employer and industry voice, and while the structure would be different, the new skills bodies would do everything the ITOs currently did “and more”, he said.

“The biggest casualty in this particular battle has been the truth.”

The vocational education sector accepted the system needed improving, but those who were performing well did not want the reforms to touch them.

National Party tertiary education spokesman Shane Reti said the ITOs were correct in their claim as they would effectively cease to exist, while the proposed changes would result in fewer apprentices – he estimates as many as 1000 – resulting in a larger skills shortage.

Hipkins said some ITOs, like the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation, had been constructive in clearly laying out which parts of the proposal they agreed with, which parts they didn’t, and how they would like to see the reform agenda altered.

“Those who have engaged constructively with the process will have more impact on the end result than those scaremongering…

“Submitting in opposition to things that aren’t in the proposal is a waste of time.”

Hipkins said he made it clear the six-week window was a genuine consultation exercise, which aimed to improve on the detail of the proposed changes.

Tight timeframe causes controversy

One of the biggest issues with the reforms has been the consultation timeline.

Hipkins announced the planned changes on February 13, and planned for submissions and public consultation to close on March 27 – a deadline extended to April 5 following the Christchurch attacks.

National and others called for a longer consultation, saying the major reforms needed further discussion.

However, Hipkins said prolonged uncertainty was dangerous and could affect enrolments for next year, with the Government planning to push ahead with changes in 2020.

Reti said he did not accept Hipkins’ claim that some vocational education providers wanted to move ahead with the brief consultation period. Hipkins has refused to name the polytechs or training organisations that have told him this, saying making their comments public would inhibit frank and honest discussion.

At this stage, the Government is hoping to push ahead in order to get the New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology up and running by the start of next year, with a phased transformation process.

National MP Shane Reti says the Government’s reforms will result in a larger skills shortage. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Meanwhile, the Government will have to go through a transition process with the ITO, in what could potentially be a long and difficult process judging by the stream of press releases piling up in opposition to the reforms from the organisations across the country.

It’s clear this is not going to be an easy ride for the Government, with the likes of Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) – a polytech with about 5000 students – also campaigning against the reforms.

On Friday afternoon, SIT lodged more than 700 submissions on the reforms as part of its “Stand up for SIT” campaign.

Skills Active Aotearoa, the training organisation for sport, exercise, recreation and performing arts, is considering a judicial review to force Hipkins to extend the consultation process until the end of June. Whether the review is lodged will depend on Hipkins’ response to demands regarding the reform timeline.

Chief executive Grant Davidson met with Hipkins and Associate Education Minister Kelvin Davis this week to discuss concerns about the impact on the 147,000 people currently undergoing on-the-job training.

Davidson said there was a small window for the minister to agree to postpone decisions relating to ITOs until after June 30, and convene a working group comprised of representatives of ITOs, industry organisations and Māori stakeholder groups, and overseen by the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission, in order to co-design a model of work-based vocational training.

The sentiment in Davidson’s demands was similar to that expressed by many ITOs, who told the minister not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

‘Take reforms to campaign trail’ – National

Many saw the failings resting with the polytechs, but the Government was committed to a complete system overhaul, similar to what was happening with education reform for ECEs, primary and secondary schools.

Reti said National was willing to work with the Government on its proposal around the funding model, but industry training should stay with the industry, and he was sure a better model could be created for the polytech sector.

While the Government said it was committed to keeping a specific regional focus to serve the industries in their areas, National was sceptical about whether the proposed reforms would properly service the regions.

Reti challenged Hipkins to take his vocational reform agenda to the campaign trail, rather than push them through in 2019. This would give the country time to engage with the changes and put the plans to the ultimate test.

But Hipkins was steadfast on the need to push on, with or without the support of all. But he said he was open to changing the plan as much as was needed throughout the past seven weeks.

Those who had been “obstructive in the process” were still probably feeling “pretty aggrieved,” he said, adding: “I don’t think we had a chance to drag this out for longer.”

Consultation officially closed on April 5. The Government hopes to have the single centralised New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology in place by January 1, 2020. There is currently no set date for when the minister will report back with the final plan.

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